The Insider

Hook-ed on Model-Netics
Each Friday morning, a group of HISD principals convenes in a conference room just off Superintendent Rod Paige's office at district headquarters, where they listen patiently as an instructor puts them through their latest lesson. The principals aren't being schooled on up-to-date classroom techniques or improved campus security procedures, but rather on the abstruse language of a management training program called "Model-Netics" that Paige is imposing on the HISD hierarchy -- at a cost to taxpayers of more than $161,000.

Model-Netics is the creation of Harold Hook, the 65-year-old chairman and former CEO of American General who's known as "Uncle Harold" to his admirers at the insurance giant and as "Captain Hook" to critics of what some consider the draconian management system in place at the corporation.

American General director Thomas Barrow once described Hook's management style and Model-Netics to Business Week as being "a lot like the military. There's a rule and a method of doing everything."

As formulated by Hook, Model-Netics consists of 151 models made up of diagrams, slogans and glyphs with such unlikely tags as "Cruel Sea," "Acres of Diamonds," "Freudian Hydraulic" and "Northbound Train."

One HISD employee undergoing the instruction says Model-Netics, which requires participants to attend 20 one-hour sessions over five months and recommends an additional 60 to 80 hours of study, doesn't seem very relevant to education management. The concept of children or their needs never comes up, and one instructor prattled on about how each school should strive "to make a profit."

"It's every kind of management principle you ever heard of, plus common sense," says the employee. It even includes such chestnuts as the Peter Principle, the tendency of organizations to promote individuals beyond their competency. "That one made us laugh," says our source, "'cause we said, 'Yep, that's HISD.' "

Model-Netics is peddled by Main Events Management (MEM), a firm that Hook established more than 20 years ago. It has become more or less synonymous with American General during Hook's 19 years at the helm of the corporation. Many of the Model-Netics trainers are American General employees, and all new employees of American General and its myriad subsidiaries go through the mandatory 20 hour-long sessions at a pace of one per week (ostensibly because the average manager can't "internalize" the models at a faster rate).

According to promotional literature for Model-Netics, each model presented in the course is a letter in a "management alphabet." Once mastered, they add up to a vocabulary that allows Model-Netics grads to converse via "the language of MEM," saving time and creating a common corporate culture. The weekly training session for principals is only one of many such sessions going on across HISD, as district superintendents trained in Model-Netics conduct other classes at their own offices. The goal is to eventually have the entire HISD bureaucracy down to the assistant principal level yakking at one other in MEM-speak.

Terry Abbott, HISD's new exorbitantly overpaid publicist, claims the district has gotten a hell of a deal from Hook. "American General is giving the school district $701,000 in free monitoring and consulting for the management improvement program," Abbott proclaimed in response to a request from The Insider for information on HISD's arrangement with MEM. "Since the district is paying only a fraction of that, for every $1 HISD spends on the program, it gets back $4.35 in free services." Thus, argued Abbott, HISD is getting more than $862,000 worth of services for $161,310.

"Oh, you're kidding -- those poor souls," exclaimed an American General employee and Model-Netics vet upon learning that HISD had embraced Hook's collection of textbook management concepts, psychobabble and mysterious symbols. He says Model-Netics is an old private joke around American General's Allen Parkway headquarters: "Nobody uses it [except] upper level management, maybe as they run into Harold Hook in the hall."

The main effect of Model-Netics is more consumer conditioning than management revolution, the employee added. "I think it's a great program to encourage the use of No Doz. Caffeine consumption goes up tremendously right before the class. You get a new employee, and they're like, 'What's this Model-Netics all about?' We all laugh and say, 'Oh, you'll find out.' "

Hook didn't sound surprised when The Insider informed him that some of his minions laugh behind his back at his training course. "What is the phrase?" he mused. "A prophet is not without honor save in his own land."

But far from laughing, Paige and his chief in-house brain-truster, educational services chief of staff Susan Sclafani, take Model-Netics very seriously. After all, they, like Hook, hold associate certificates in Model-Netics and have received their "Model-Netics Memory Jogger," a sort of Little Red Book of the program's principles for those who can't recall all 151 models at the drop of a memo. For instance, should Paige be in a mood to privatize HISD cafeteria services and lay off workers, he can simply thumb to "Cruel Sea" in his Memory Jogger and brush up on this definition: "The term applied to situations which, in the interest of the total organization, require a decision which will have a negative impact on some individuals in the organization."

Among current users of the program listed in the Model-Netics literature are the Los Angeles County government, AT&T, IBM and Arthur Andersen. That claim, however, appears to be false -- or at least badly outdated. Lu Takeuchi, Los Angeles County's director of human resources, said Model-Netics was used briefly in the early eighties by the county and then discarded. Takeuchi couldn't recall any of the Model-Netics concepts. "I really can't comment on the quality of the program," she said, "other than we're not using it anymore." Corporate PR and marketing officers for regional offices of AT&T, IBM and Arthur Andersen say they've never heard of Model-Netics.

Hook concedes that the list of clients for Model-Netics is out of date. He then ticks off a list of current and satisfied customers that includes Southern Illinois University, Columbia HCA, Mutual of Omaha and the Air Force Reserve in Charleston, South Carolina.

The match between Model-Netics and HISD was made not in heaven but rather on a civic endeavor called the Business Advisory Group that he chaired several years back, Hook says. Al Haines, the former city finance director who migrated to the Greater Houston Partnership, was also a member of the council, which worked with the HISD board for three years. During that time both Hook and Haines became acquainted with Paige. Haines later joined American General, got hooked on Model-Netics and suggested to Paige he might be interested in it for the district.

So that's how all you HISD conscripts ended up being taught to speak Model-Netics. And you'd better learn to talk the talk, lest you wind up walking Captain Hook's plank straight into the Cruel Sea. A helpful Q&A for trainees includes Question Number 12: "Does management have any way of determining if participants are using Model-Netics?"

The answer: "Without a doubt. Model-Netics is a language, and it is pretty easy to tell who is using a language."

Yeah, But Watch Out for Those Peels!
Dominique Sachse was vibrating with good cheer as she promo'ed upcoming stories on Channel 2's daybreak newscast last week, including a feature on "one man [who] says the world's going bananas, and he's got the artwork to prove it."

"We've been accused of monkeying around here a little bit," Sachse quipped to co-anchor Bob Nicholas, who seemed to have a premonition something bad was about to happen. "A little bit," Nicholas repeated cautiously. "A little bit," echoed Sachse, who then proceeded to introduce "our resident monkey, Miss Orelon." That would be weathercaster Orelon Sidney, who, like Nicholas, is African-American. Sachse then let out a shrill laugh, while Sidney exclaimed, "Just you wait ...," before soldiering on into her weather forecast.

Sachse, whose news background prior to her employment at Channel 2 consisted of a stint at Metro Traffic announcing road conditions, explains she had no idea that her comment might be offensive to African-American viewers or co-workers.

"I was unaware of the association of the word 'monkey' with African-Americans, and did not know they had been called that in the past. Unfortunately, I said it, and the context was we clown around and have a good time," she says. When someone clued her in, Sachse adds, she personally apologized to Sidney "because I did not want her to take it in the wrong way."

The incident brought to mind Howard Cosell's infamous description of especially fleet (and black) Redskins receiver Alvin Garrett as "a little monkey" years ago on ABC's Monday Night Football. Both Cosell and his network publicly apologized for the remark. That apparently won't happen at KPRC, as general manager Steve Wasserman says he has apologized to callers but doesn't plan any public expression of regret for Sachse's stab at early-morning racial solidarity.

Viewers desiring a personal apology from Channel 2 can call Wasserman at 222-2222.

Sneaky Pete
The Dallas Morning News has vigorously denied that reporter Pete Slover broke into a defense team computer to acquire the alleged confession of Oklahoma City bombing suspect Timothy McVeigh. But if Slover didn't hack into the defense's electronic files, as McVeigh attorney Stephen Jones initially alleged, it's not for lack of ability. Former co-workers at the Houston Chronicle remember Slover as a hacker par excellence who could slip into management's computer files and extract information for his colleagues. A onetime Chronicle reporter who thought he was being shortchanged on his paycheck recalls asking Slover to access salary figures for other newsroom personnel -- a request that Slover dutifully fulfilled.

Contacted in Dallas, th reporter declined to discuss the details of how the acquired the McVeigh document and referred all questions to Morning News management.

Call The Insider at 624-1483 or 624-1496 (fax), or drop him a line at Insider@houston-press.com.

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